When I'm in the market for a car, I like to check out the latest safety features available to protect my family. Some of the new options are so high-tech, however, it can be tough to determine which are worth buying.
George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association in Toronto, says even car salespeople are not always well informed about the features they're peddling. I asked Iny to explain how some of the latest safety technology works and what he considers to be the most worthy new options.
The most valuable, Iny says, is active-braking technology, which detects when you are too close to another driver and automatically slows your vehicle. Some systems will even bring your car to a complete stop.
"This is a huge plus," Iny says. "Early studies seem to indicate that it will reduce collisions in traffic by about a quarter to a third, and some of the collisions that do occur will be at lower speeds because the vehicle already started braking before a human would have."
Some of the better systems claim to be able to recognize pedestrians and cyclists. Iny calls this technology a "game-changer."
Active cruise control is a lesser version of active braking, which helps maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you. "If that guy slows down to a full stop, your car is going to slow down also to a full stop," Iny says.
Active-proximity sensing is similar. It will warn of a collision but not apply the brakes.
Backup cameras are common upgrades on most mid-level trims these days. They were introduced to help prevent drivers from backing into children, and are especially useful on SUVs that have higher sightlines.
However, backup cameras have led to an unintended consequence, Iny says. "We're finding people are now hitting the rear corners of their vehicles more. They stop looking and only use the camera." If it's an option, he says, go for a system with sonar and a chime to warn of objects outside the camera's range.
Cross-traffic alert is another low-speed collision-avoidance system that can help you back out of a parking spot. If you're parked beside a taller vehicle, this system detects objects beyond your field of vision, and will sound an alarm. "The car actually sees around the corner, so that shows a lot of promise," Iny says.
Cross-traffic alert is often bundled with a blind-spot information system and lane-change warning, Iny says. They alert drivers when vehicles are in their blind spots. "The theory is that would reduce vehicle conflicts when you're changing lanes and when you're merging."
Lane-keeping assist and active steering are offered as premium options and are more commonly found on luxury cars. They will sound a warning when drivers stray from their lanes and some will even steer the vehicle back on course. Some systems will detect when a driver's hand leaves the steering wheel and will shake the wheel or sound a warning. "One of the cars we drove actually had an icon of a cup of steaming coffee to tell you to wake up," Iny says.
Although there aren't studies to prove it, Iny says this feature could be beneficial for older drivers, who are more likely to be involved in collisions where they were not in their correct lanes or didn't check their blind spots.
Some new options that are being touted as safety features should be taken with a grain of salt, Iny says. This is especially true for any sort of on-board connectivity system.
There is no evidence to suggest this technology reduces collisions, Iny says. "It's a convenience feature. It's a ticket avoider, but I doubt it's much safer."
Inflatable seat belts are promising in reducing certain rear seat-belt-induced injuries, Iny says, but are an expensive option when you consider how uncommon such injuries are. "In the front, the airbag is going to do the work," Iny says. "Because the back seat is often unoccupied, I don't think they're going to be able to show a significant reduction in injuries or fatalities."
All-wheel drive is often promoted as a safety feature. "I don't believe it," Iny says. "It's definitely a convenience feature that will prevent you from getting stuck. There's no record to show that vehicles with all-wheel drive are involved in fewer collisions. In some cases, it might make you too comfortable and you may drive too fast for the conditions."
It's been several years since I last shopped for a new car and much has changed in terms of safety features. With a bit of research, however, I think I can steer myself in the right direction.
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